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DE HEER: THE TRACKER


WRESTLES WITH JAGUARS

Archie, an Australian mechanic who once wrestled a Jaguar, used to help keep Rolf de Heer ‘in perspective’- and his influence carried on into The Tracker, in which de Heer is doing a bit of political Jaguar wrangling himself, reports Andrew L. Urban.


As the credits rolled at the end of The Tracker in the great space of Melbourne’s Concert Hall on the opening night of the Melbourne International Film Festival, one of the last items was a line dedicating the film to Charlie Kiroff. Patrons in their formal wear were shuffling out and the Archie Roach Band, which had accompanied the film playing and singing live as a special treat for festival patrons, was packing up their instruments. I scribbled down ‘Charlie Kiroff’ on my notepad, to ask the film’s writer and director, Rolf de Heer, who was Archie and why was this film dedicated to him.

Next day, in the marble foyer of a Melbourne hotel, Rolf de Heer told me. Charlie Kiroff was a car and motorbike mechanic and a best boy; he had designed a motion control camera system and wrestled a Jaguar in South America (as a stunt double for Richard Dreyfuss). “He was always the first person I’d pick in a crew,” says de Heer. They first worked together on de Heer’s second feature, Raven’s Gate in 1988. “I’d say, ‘what do you want to do? And he might say, ‘best boy to a good gaffer’” (Gaffer is lighting technician, best boy is his/her assistant.) 

This is exactly the opposite to the usual procedure, in which the director of photography is hired first, then he picks the gaffer and then the best boy is hired. 

Rolf de Heer’s admiration for Charlie was so great he once even wrote a role for him, one so specific as to make it nigh-impossible to hire an American; “I created a short, red haired, red bearded mechanic character to get Charlie to the US for a film I was planning to make – but it never got made.”

"helped me to keep my perspective"

When Charlie Kiroff turned up, uncharacteristically, one day late on the Arkaloora location in South Australia preparing for The Tracker, he was complaining of back pain. He died of cancer of the spine a few days before shooting began. He was just 44. “He always helped me to keep my perspective on things,” says de Heer. 

And even though Charlie was not around in person for the shoot, his spirit clearly helped de Heer keep his perspective while making The Tracker. For one thing, Charlie had been around throughout its gestation: de Heer wrote a 12 page treatment back in 1991. “I was just angry and this story formed itself in my head. I took half a day off work and wrote it down.” 

His anger came from “discovering stuff I didn’t know … things that were swept under the carpet that are a part of my heritage,” he says, referring to social history around the 1920s when much of white Australia treated Aboriginals virtually as slaves. He set the film in 1922, the year his father was born. 

“From that starting point, you’re making a film to give enjoyment to the audience – which is a broad concept. So it becomes a process of evolution as you develop the script and make the film. The songs started off as an effort to lighten it up. But that just seemed to trivialise everything. It only began to work when there was an indigenous voice – and that influenced the words,” says de Heer, his long legs resting over the arm of a sedate lobby armchair, his beard regrown in full, his hat tossed onto the nearby lounge. 

This is the ninth film on which de Heer and compsoer Graham Tardif have collaborated: “so we had a close working relationship. And the songs also perform the function of cinema music. So he wrote the songs knowing that. Then I wrote the words and I knew they had to resonate with the images but not describe them.”

He knew where there would be music, and many of the scenes are clearly meshed so effectively with the music that it is hard to believe they weren’t created simultaneously. 

The anger that triggered the film’s creation is balanced by years of development and the growing of wisdom, perhaps, but it is still discernible. The film, however, is not an angry film. Indeed, it’s often wryly humorous, among moments of great drama. Indeed, the film’s final scene aggregates the many issues it raises in a gently mocking, humorous vein that removes the anger and replaces it with an urge to recognise the reality of the human condition. 

But for many, especially in Australia, The Tracker will be seen as a political film, a cry for setting to rights the injustices of the past. Is Rolf de Heer wrangling the political version of a Jaguar that Charlie Kiroff once wrestled? Does The Tracker bring audiences into the jungle of Australia’s often reviled past? Is this a roar of pain or a plea for reconciliation?

"My feelings fluctuate wildly"

The man himself is torn between two opposing positions on this: “My feelings fluctuate wildly. Sometimes I feel it should be just a cinematic experience. At other times I think things that I would not want to see printed anywhere – they’re so radical,” says de Heer.

Published August 8, 2002

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Rolf de Heer


REVIEWS

The Band at the MIFF premiere,
July 23, 2002:
Archie Roach – vocals
Martin Boyd – keyboard
Steve Salvi – guitar & dobro
Julian Barnett – guitars
Andy Salvanos – bass
Craig Lauritsen - drums







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